Why Mumbai Police can't trace your stolen smartphone

Mar 30, 2014, 07:00 IST | Sagar Rajput

With thieves using sophisticated Chinese equipment to change identity numbers, cops say it's impossible to track them. Crooks allegedly use a gadget called the 'black box' to crack passwords

The bad guys are usually one step ahead of the law. It is no surprise therefore, when police officers throw their arms up in the air and say the cell phone you just lost, is as good as gone.

Black Box to crack passwords of stolen smartphones
The Black Box, which is used by crooks to crack a mobile’s IMEI number

With the recent arrest of gang members of two different groups of mobile thieves, the Mumbai police have stumbled upon unique software that these men used to tamper with the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of stolen phones — making it next to impossible for cops to trace the cell phones.

ACB Unit 8 officials with three mobile thieves who got arrested

In fact in the last month, the Mumbai crime branch officers have tracked different groups of mobile thieves who have confessed that they crack the IMEI numbers with the help of specific equipment known as the ‘black box’. This China-manufactured gadget is available in the grey market here.

Cops allegedly told Sushank Marla to forget about his lost phone

Cops mention curiously named brands such as Octopus, Pirhana, Fusion Box, SPT box and Spider box who manufacture these black boxes, which are attached to the stolen phones to crack the IMEIs numbers. And if the stolen phone’s password-protected, these gangs have another gadget — the Flasher Box — to erase the data.

“Both the Flasher box and Black box gadgets are available in a south Mumbai shopping arcade for anything between Rs 5000 and R15,000. During investigations, we have found that most cell phones stolen in Mumbai are routed to certain areas in Nagpada, Manish Market, RAK colony, Bandra and Malad to break the IMEI codes. Once the code is cracked, the phones are passed to shopkeepers who sell them as second hand products,” said a crime branch officer.

Watch your mobile
Cops say local trains and crowded BEST buses are the biggest hunting grounds for these thieves. Once stolen, a phone is switched off and passed on to a shopkeeper who they have a good equation with.

It is the shopkeepers who pass the phones to IMEI crackers who break the IMEI numbers and hand it back to the sellers, along with new IMEI numbers written on a sheet of paper.

The shopkeepers then get the new IMEI numbers printed and stick it over the old IMEI number, under the battery of the mobile phone. They then print a fake bill and sell these phones as legal second hand gadgets.

Speaking to sunday mid-day, Police inspector Sunil Mane from Crime Branch Unit 8 said, “People often get duped looking at the fake bill. All buyers of second-hand phones should check the original IMEI numbers of the cell phones by pressing *#06# on the phone and crosschecking with the number affixed behind. No tracking equipment will be able to break the IMEI number fitted inside the mobile.”

Tough to track
However, even as all information seems to suggest that the criminals are fighting with sophisticated gadgets, cops by and large seem least bothered. One such victim, Mulund resident Sushank Marla said, “Earlier this week I was taking a bus from Dattani Park in Kandivli. As I boarded the bus, several people crowded me. Soon after, I realised my phone was missing. I immediately asked a fellow passenger to call on my mobile number but it had already been switched off.”

When he reached Kandivli police station, instead of registering the offence immediately, cops told him to forget about the phone. “I was shocked at their attitude,” he remembers. “Later when I heard that crime branch officers had caught four people and recovered 114 cell phones I rushed there and found my phone,” said Marla.

Sunil Joshua, a Kalina resident who had his phone stolen recently said, “I was coming back from work in a bus when my phone was stolen. I registered a case with the local police station, but I am yet to get my phone back. It has been almost three months.”

When contacted, senior police inspector Deepak Phatangare of Crime Branch Unit 8 that recently recovered 114 stolen phones, said, “We got a tip off that a shopkeeper who deals in stolen mobile phones, was going to Malad to deliver a few cell phones. We laid a trap and arrested him. He led us to three others and we received many phones.”

Earlier this week, a Crime Branch Unit 5 team too laid a trap outside GS Hotel in Kurla to arrest one Vishal Kadam and recover many stolen phones.

An officer from Unit 5 said, “The arrested man told us that the price for breaking IMEI numbers depends on the cost of the cell phone. We have recovered ten mobile phones and two equipment used to break the codes, from Kadam. While we have also seized his computer.”

Speaking to sunday mid-day, deputy commissioner of police Mahesh Patil said, “We do not ignore cases of mobile theft as alleged, but in recent months we have not been successful in detecting many cases, as we pass on the IMEI numbers to network companies and they delay getting back to us.”

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